How Carmine Infantino Designed DC’s Silver Age

DC Comics’ Showcase #4, cover dated October 1956, is usually recognized as the book that launched the so-called Silver Age of comics by reintroducing the Flash and effectively reviving the superhero genre. The iconic cover image shows the character in a new bright red costume bursting out of a strip of black and white film: a bold declaration that a new, more modern breed of superhero has arrived. Both that cover and the new costume were both created by artist Carmine Infantino (b. 1924, d. 2013), who served as DC’s artistic director and publisher over the years, and whose smooth line work and clever sense of design helped define the look and feel of DC’s Silver Age.

Although the popularity of superheroes had waned since World War II, in the mid 1950s and early ‘60s writers Gardner Fox and John Broome –under the guidance of editor Julius Schwartz– reintroduced characters that had originally appeared in the early ‘40s. They gave these new versions of the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom a more modern, almost “science-fiction” feel. As Grant Morrison says in Supergods, his book about the history of the genre, they represented “Kennedy Man”: “the astronaut, the handsome scientist, the confident, pioneering go-getter with the beautiful wife or girlfriend and an eye on the stars and the shining future.” This sense of youthful optimism was captured in the art of Gil Kane and Infantino, who both brought a sleek, streamlined look to their characters. Their characters had a lithe, graceful style and were more likely to use their wits than their fists to solve problems. They looked more like gymnasts than brawlers, especially when compared to Curt Swan’s barrel-chested Superman of the time. While both artists helped redefine the look of superheroes, Infantino’s canny sense of design, playful cover art, and use of pop art techniques made his work stand out and helped define the look of DC’s Silver Age books. Even later in his career, Infantino was exploring new techniques and brought a sense of abstraction and inventiveness to his work.

Infantino’s redesign of the Flash is a model of elegance and simplicity: a red jumpsuit and cowl, yellow boots, a simple chest emblem and yellow accents. It manages to recall iconic elements of older characters, namely the winged helmet of the original Flash and Captain Marvel’s stylized lightning bolt, while making those 1940s designs look clunky and out-of-date. Instead of a clumsy cape or other accouterments, Infantino’s design had a sleek, “space-age” feel that captured the design zeitgeist by being both functional and futuristic. Not only is it a model of simplicity and minimalism, it is a perfect match for the character. The skintight suit sense given the Flash’s powers, and it makes him look speedy and agile even when standing still. When in motion, the costume is still identifiable even when depicted as simply a bright red blur. The iconic lightning bolt emblem has become as immediately identifiable as Superman’s “S” shield and the Batsignal, firmly establishing the character in pop culture lexicon. It’s a timeless design, and its elegance is even more evident when compared to Jim Lee’s recent redesign: the addition of accents and seams makes it look overly busy and needlessly complex.

In 1964, Schwartz assigned Infantino to redesign Batman in an effort to boost the sagging sales of Detective Comics. As with the Flash, Infantino’s smooth art style gave Batman a sleek, athletic look. In fact, Infantino’s style was so identifiable that he was the first Batman artist to not sign his work as “Bob Kane”, which previous artists like Sheldon Moldoff and Jerry Robinson had been required to do. The most notable change Infantino made to Batman’s costume was the addition of a yellow oval around the Bat-emblem on the chest, which became an integral part of the character for over four decades. This redesigned version of Batman’s costume became ingrained in pop culture two years later when Adam West donned it for TV. The “New Look” became the most recognizable version of the character, appearing on TV in the 1966 live action series, the Super Friends and New Adventures of Batman cartoons of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and more recently on Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Although the yellow oval came and went in the comics (most notably in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, in which it is ripped off and replaced with a more stylized logo sans oval, an obvious indication that Miller was distancing his take on the character from the “campy” 1960s version), it ended up being the centerpiece of the multimedia marketing blitz surrounding Tim Burton’s 1989 movie. The elegant simplicity of Infantino’s iconic design was clearly evident when the first poster for Batman arrived: a close up shot of the Bat-symbol against a gold oval was enough to indicate who the movie was about.

Infantino’s eye for design was also apparent in his cover designs, which combined commercial advertising and pop art with his sleek art style. This combination gave his covers an eye-catching playfulness that became a signature for DC’s Silver Age titles. In fact, his covers were so successful and popular that by 1967, Infantino was designing the covers for all of DC’s titles. Rather than simply showcasing the character or previewing the story, Infantino’s covers seemed to contain stories within themselves, such as the legendary “Flash of Two Worlds” cover from Flash #123, one of the most widely-copied images in comic book history. Other covers played with convention by integrating the logo into the action, such as Batman #194 or Flash #174. His most famous cover is probably Flash #163 which shatters the “fourth wall” as the Flash begs the reader, “STOP! Don’t pass up this issue! My life depends on it!” It’s a brilliant, post-modern spin on the traditional comic cover, and has been imitated countless times. It’s also important, because, as Morrison puts it in Supergods, “[It] was genuine Pop Art in its natural mass-produced Platonic form. This was art as product in a way that the gallery works of Roy Lichtenstein could only aspire to, and Infantino’s design would look spectacular in the Museum of Modern Art or the Tate, twenty feet tall.” This integration of pop art sensibility and playful design continues to influence comic book art—both covers and interiors—to this day.

Along with his costume and cover designs, Infantino’s interior art also redefined the dynamic language of superhero art. Most notably, his techniques to showcase the Flash’s superspeed –a series of figures in a flurry of speedlines — became the standard way of drawing the character in action. This is actually a fairly sophisticated way of depicting motion, and calls to other modern art techniques, such Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase #2 and the films of Eadweard Muybridge. Sometimes, as in example above, the Flash’s speed is shown from his perspective: moving objects appear suspended in mid-air just as the character would perceive them. These techniques showcased Infantino’s innate understanding of how the comic book medium can portray motion in a static image.

Infantino experimented with every element of the medium: panels, layouts, and even the caption boxes he often augmented with little hands that offered a commentary of sorts on the story (as seen in the page from “The Flash of Two Worlds” above). As a result, his pages often feel designed to mimic the Flash himself: they may appear fast and frenetic, but there is always an underlying sense of purpose and control. For example, by varying the size of the panels or even titling them at an angle, he gave the pages a sense the movement that “pushed” the narrative, along with the readers’ eyes, forward without being confusing. He explored these experiments in page design even further later in his career by trying full-page layouts without panels à la Will Eisner. Some of the best examples of this are in his work during the epic “Trial of the Flash” story, which ran from issue #323 to the series’ conclusion in #350. Augmented by the bold, clean inks of Frank McLaughlin, Infantino experimented with his page layouts and speedlines, pushing them to new levels of abstraction until they became a sort of kinetic shorthand for motion itself. Yet, even when pushed to those extremes, his linework remained clean, smooth and deliberate. If anything, these later issues demonstrate a well-earned assurance and show just how skilled of artist Infantino was as he pushed the language of the medium in new directions.

It’s fitting that the first volume of the Flash series ends with Infantino, the artist who redefined the character forever. After “The Trial of the Flash” concluded in issue #350, Barry Allen, whose first appearance signaled the dawning of the Silver Age, sacrificed himself in the pages of Crisis on Infinite Earths, marking the dawn of the Modern Age of comics. By seeing the series to its end, Infantino was symbolically passing the torch. However, even though Barry Allen, the embodiment of “Kennedy Man,” died, the Flash returned in 1987 as the former Kid Flash Wally West—whose origin Infantino drew back in 1959—took on the mantle and, more importantly, the iconic costume. The Silver Age of DC comics may have passed, but the artist who designed its graceful creativity remains important and influential as ever.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul R Jaissle is a philosophy professor, collage artist, and musician who writes about film and comic book theory and blogs for destroythecyb.org. He earned his MA in philosophy and art from Stony Brook University, and currently lives in Grand Rapids, MI. You can follow him at paulrjaissle.tumblr.com and @ohhipaulie on Twitter.

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